A Thousand Peaceful Cities [Why This Book Should Win the BTBA]
Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.
All posts in this series can be found here. Today’s is mostly made up of something I wrote some time back.
A Thousand Peaceful Cities by Jerzy Pilch, translated by David Frick
Publisher: Open Letter
Why It Should Win: Because we published it; it was one of Kirkus‘s top 25 books of 2010; “by a billion barrels of beer!”
To be quite frank, Pilch’s A Thousand Peaceful Cities should win the BTBA because he’s the best writer about the joys and long-term terrors of drinking . . . And by drinking I don’t mean in-moderation-three-drinks-a-week-in-gentrified-social-company sort of drinking, I mean the full-on-drink-away-your-life-savings-on-grain-alcohol sort of drinking.
But it’s not like Pilch’s novels are moral sludges about the dangers of excess boozing—instead, they find that perfect balance between depicting the allure of a good buzz and the waves of fear and regret that accompany a true bender.
This is more true of The Mighty Angel than A Thousand Peaceful Cities, but last spring, when proofing this book, I wrote a post (while “tipsy”) that I’m still pretty proud of, and does a decent job of explaining the differences and similarities between the two novels while capturing the drunken vibe and overall awesomeness of Peaceful.
In other words, this post specifies exactly why A Thousand Peaceful Cities should win the 2011 BTBA for fiction.
What follows is a number of excerpts from that post. (What? I was expecting to be living in a series of snow-carved tunnels for the foreseeable future, so planned ahead. Not my fault that this “snowpocalpyse panic” was brought to you by the egg, dairy, and bread industries.)
A Thousand Peaceful Cities is a much different book from The Mighty Angel. The narration is a bit more complicated, flipping in focus between young Jerzy and his coming-of-age experiences and the endless banter of Mr. Traba in a way that builds in complexity and insight as the book progresses. By contrast, Mighty Angel, itself an intensely powerful book, is much more confessional, direct, singular in voice and presentation.
Re: Jerzy’s adolescent adventures, one of the best bits in the book is when he describes the “angel of his first love” and his attempt to connect with her. She lives across the way in an apartment above a department store that looks down on Jerzyk’s bedroom window. So he puts a sign up that says “WHY DON’T YOU SMILE?” Finally, he catches her eye:
Now it was I who waved to her. I let it be known that I am here, that I consent to everything. I sent her missives to calm the air. I soothed her fury with the help of a mad alphabet of incoherent gestures. Finally she noticed me, and she stood stock-still. Now I slowly pointed my index finger at myself, and then I reached both hands out in her direction, which was to signify: “I will come to you right away, and I will allow you to make sport of my young and virginal body.” But she, to my great amazement, shook her head no, and she turned her unparalleled hand down, in the direction of the display window of the footwear section, which was covered with a green grating. I repeated my gesture. She doesn’t understand, I thought—or maybe she just doesn’t believe her own dumb luck.
Charmingly innocent acts like this are offset by Mr. Traba’s (I keep wanting to type “Uncle Traba,” because he is such an uncle figure, always at the kitchen table, schnapps in hand, pontificating) long-winded, hilarious, and world-wise diatribes that range from randy bits about his virginal maid (who, “departed this world intacta [. . .] In peacetime conditions her exterior was a bit too radically conspicuous . . . “), to his desire to accomplish something memorable before he dies, namely, assassinating of the Communist leader of Poland.
What I ran into tonight was the boozy thread that connects Jerzy’s blossoming and Traba’s insanity with The Mighty Angel. And it became clear that if there’s one thing that Pilch excels at, it’s writing about the pernicious effects of alcohol.
Here’s a bit from the moment when young Jerzyk is drawn into Traba’s assassination scheme. In typical
Polish Pilch fashion, they indoctrinate him with a drink:
And we drank. And I drank. And it went as smoothly as could be. The transparent cloud of juniper berry vodka threaded its way among the shadows of my entrails, and there were upon it signs and prophecies, and there were in this first sip of mine the prefigurations of all my future sips. Recorded in it were all my future falls, bouts of drunkenness, bottles, glasses, retchings, all my future delirious dreams, all my gutters, counters, tables, bars, all the cities on the pavement of which my corpse would once repose. There were all the waitresses with whom I would place orders in my life. You could hear it in my incoherent babble, and in it my hands shook. Even my death, shrouded in a cloak made of nothing but bottle labels, sat there and laughed terribly, but I wasn’t afraid in the least. And so I drank. The first power entered into me, and together with it came the first great bestowal of wings. I was able to do everything now. With one action I was able to solve a thousand complicated equations. With one motion I was able to summon a thousand protective angels. With one kick I could kick a thousand goals. With one gesture of my powerful hand, I could grind Wladyslaw Gomulka [the person Traba wants to assassinate] to dust.
Ah yes, the first drunken pleasures. That moment before the bars of overwhelming neediness, the sad solitary nature of a really wicked hangover, the desire to repeat just to keep repeating, to try and recapture that first moment. That’s what Traba seems to have lived through. That’s why he knows he’s on his way out and has to do something impressive and meaningful before the booze catches him.
One Sunday, Jerzyk decides to forgo church in favor of booze. Too young to be served at a bar, he heads to Traba’s house and finds his quasi-hero, his Quixotic-hero, in a state diametrically opposed to the figure of the jolly man who talks too much and punctuates his speech with the energetic expression “By a billion barrels of beer!”
Mr. Traba lay on an iron bed, which was standing in the middle of a huge chamber that was even larger than our kitchen. Except for the bed, and the bottle that was standing by the bed, there were no pieces of furniture or any other objects, nothing. Just the numbed vastness of the waters, the castaway adrift in the middle, and a bottle full of disastrous news. Blood oozed from Mr. Traba’s cut forehead. Saliva flowed from his lips as they parted again and again. The green army pants he wore were completely soaked. The room was in the grip of the deathbed odor of a body that was passively floating in all its substances, although it was, in fact, filled with only one substance. Mr. Traba said something, whispered, gibbered nonsense, but at first I wasn’t able to catch even a single word, not even one intelligible sound. Still, I strained. I mobilized my secret talent for guessing words that had not yet been spoken, and after a moment—to tell the truth, after a very long moment—I knew more or less what it was about. The key word in Mr. Traba’s delirious narration was the word “tea,” and the entire narration was about love. It was the sentimental complaint of a man lamenting the fact that he couldn’t drink tea at the side of his beloved, since she was drinking tea at the side of another. The whole thing abounded in innumerable digressions, unintentional interjections, and unintelligible ornaments. Perhaps the general thrust of the lament—that drinking tea at the side of one’s beloved was the single dream in the life of a man—was a too-incessantly-repeated refrain, but, taking Mr. Traba’s state into consideration, everything came out amazingly fluently. After all, it was as it always was with him: the sense of his story was the basic, and perhaps the only, tie linking him with the world. The beloved’s name didn’t come up even once. Perhaps I wasn’t able to guess it, or perhaps I didn’t want to guess it. I produced a white handkerchief from the pocket of my Sunday clothes. I poured a little vodka on it from the bottle standing by the bed. I applied the dressing made in this fashion to Mr. Traba’s forehead, and I wiped the slowly drying blood.
The contrast between Jerzyk’s present possibilities (the “angel of his first love”) and the fucked past of Traba that is corroded, ruined by his unending drunkenness is what struck me so hard. The effects of drink isn’t a unique theme in literature—and this may not even be a very unique treatment—but the way this book unfolds, with Jerzyk’s innocence coming under the power of this always-blasted, comically-unhinged, potentially-dangerous man, is quite powerful and compelling. ATPC is the perfect companion to The Mighty Angel. And not just for the way you can trace back Jerzy’s drinking obsession . . .